Our Commitment to Renewable Energy On and Off the Farm

We have had a commitment to using renewable energy on our farm wherever practical since before we actually began farming. We knew as far back as 1997 when we built our first greenhouse, that petroleum was not going to be a sustainable way to heat greenhouses in Maine. We have been researching practical, cost effective renewable fuel technologies that might have potential for us since then.

Biodiesel Off the Farm

From late 2005 until early 2009 Ralph worked as an Owner’s representative assisting with the design, construction, and start up of a 45 million gallon per year biodiesel plant in Erie, PA that remains a leader in the industry.  At the time it was the largest multi-feedstock biodiesel plant in the country.  Ralph’s responsibilities included selecting the technology provider, designing the plant throughput, designing the lab and selecting the lab equipment, coordinating between the technology provider and the general contractor, and assisting in the plant start up.  Ralph understands biodiesel technology in intricate detail, and we believe that biodiesel is a good thing as long as it meets industry quality standards.

Although making biodiesel is not a practical solution for our farm we remain strong supporters of biodiesel manufactured to strict quality standards (ASTM D6751) for any application using diesel engines. Because biodiesel is not well suited for engine use in long term storage and cold climate applications of a farm in Maine, and because the biodiesel made in Maine ignores the ASTM quality standards, we do not support any locally produced biodiesel at this time.

Renewable Energy On Our Farm

The complexity and cost of making biodiesel that is safe to burn in diesel engines makes the technology extremely difficult (in my opinion impractical) for on farm manufacture. This led us to consider other, more simple and safe ways to use triglycerides (animal fats and vegetable oils) as fuel on the farm. An analysis of our energy use showed that less than 5% of all the fuel used on our farm is diesel fuel and about 90% is heating fuel. Because of this, we settled on using raw, locally available, used triglycerides as heating fuel and sticking with reliable, safe diesel (ASTM D975) in our tractors.

Our greenhouse heating system makes use of used animal fats and vegetable oils from local restaurants sometimes called Used Cooking Oil (UCO), now referred to as Triglyceride Burner Fuel (TBF). Some refer to these fats and oils as Waste Vegetable Oil (WVO). We reject this concept since these materials are truly a resource and not a waste. Unlike homemade biodiesel, our system uses no hazardous materials to make the oil burnable, requires no hazardous and complicated chemical conversion, and generates no hazardous waste. The only waste products are the food bits and watery waste cleaned from the TBF and the stack emissions which are 100% renewable and are considerably less than emissions of No 2 fuel oil.

At the present time, we have had to curtail our use of this local renewable resource because the Federal government subsidies to the biodiesel industry have made the raw materials astronomically expensive for us.  At our peak, we operated three burners for a total of more than 3,500 hours per year. The burners each consume 2.5 gallons of TBF per hour, which means that we used almost 8,000 gallons of TBF each year resulting in savings of up to $20,000 per year over No 2 heating oil. The disposal savings to the restaurants in Freeport was estimated at about $8,000 per year. We remain convinced that this concept is practical and could result in significant cost savings for greenhouse operators while providing a more environmentally friendly energy source. This should be a win/win/win solution for everyone involved, but the Federal subsidies have made it economically impossible.